If ever there’s a moment that brilliantly and perfectly illustrates the star-power possessed by Diana Ross, it is the opening of her 1978-1979 stage show, captured on tape for this Home Box Office television special. Beginning with the star’s face projected on a large screen, mouthing the words to her #1 hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the scene cuts to Miss Ross (draped in furs and jewels, of course) sauntering down a white, almost surreal staircase. At the bottom of the stairs – during the joyous, climactic crescendo of the song – she suddenly bursts from the screen and onto the stage, greeted by the screams and cheers of an overwhelmed audience. Those lucky enough to be at these shows literally watched a superstar come to life before their eyes; incredibly, the impact is equally great when watched on a television screen decades later.
The HBO special, first aired in early 1980 as part of the network’s “Standing Room Only” series, was taped at Caesar’s Palace as Diana promoted her then-current album, 1979’s The Boss. This was a peak time in the diva’s career; she’d dazzled audience around the world with her demanding, Tony Award-winning An Evening With Diana Ross show, then given her voice an even greater workout belting the songs for her 1978 film The Wiz. She further strengthened her vocal chords recording The Boss with writers/producers Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, the result being a hit album and songs that showed off a range and power that many had forgotten Diana Ross possessed.
The concert/special focuses on songs from The Boss; aside from the title track, she performs “No One Gets The Prize,” “I Ain’t Been Licked,” “It’s My House,” and “All For One.” Being that these are all standout Diana Ross songs, this emphasis on a 1979 LP doesn’t date the special at all. Better yet, she sounds fantastic on each one, proving that her vocal acrobatics on the recordings weren’t studio creations. There are also some songs here that fans would rarely hear in concert again; Diana offers lovely readings of Stevie Wonder’s “Too Shy To Say” (from Baby It’s Me) and “Home” from The Wiz. The good news – this special is widely available today, albeit in lower-quality copies. Even without a crystal-clear picture, it’s essential viewing.
1. Opening/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: As mentioned before, this is a breathtaking, impeccably conceived and staged introduction to the concert/special. Diana Ross – larger-than-life – bursts forth from the screen to greet her fans, looking as glamorous as a 1940s Hollywood star. That said – how many classic film stars would follow an entrance like that with the words, “My designer’s would just die if you didn’t recognized coat. And this mother’s heavy!”?
2. Too Shy To Say: Diana quickly segues into this Stevie Wonder song from her classic (and underappreciated) 1977 LP Baby It’s Me. Her performance on the recorded version was lush, warm, and dreamy, resulting in a hypnotic quality that would be almost impossible to replicate in the company of hundreds of fans. Thus, she’s brassier and breathy here, but makes it work by turning the song into an audience dedication rather than an intimate declaration to a lover. It’s a lovely performance, with Diana’s technical skills on full display; her head-voice high notes at the end of the song are incredibly beautiful.
3. Dedicated to “all the men in the house,” Diana offers up a quickly paced version of her 1973 #1 hit “Touch Me In The Morning;” though it’s one of her most successful singles, the version here is so abbreviated that it passes by almost unnoticed. She looks and sounds good while singing the song, but it’s not one of the standout moments here, mainly because there are such incredibly stronger performances to come.
4. I Wanna Be Bad: An A Chorus Line-ish production number where Diana gets to dance with her top-hat-and-tails-clad dancers. It’s nice to see Diana shake her stuff here; her energy appears boundless, and while the song isn’t exactly a showstopper, it’s a fun addition that mixes up the hits a little bit.
5. I Ain’t Been Licked: Here’s where the HBO special really kicks into high gear; after a quick moment off-stage, Diana runs back on, wild mane of hair set free, and rips into this triumphant number from The Boss. As she sings the opening line, “Roll down the gangway…,” she makes a large, swooping arm motion, as though she’s lobbing a bowling ball into the audience. There’s something about this gesture – something in its grand simplicity – that instantly establishes Diana’s connection to the song. She’s a bundle of energy here, skipping back and forth across the stage, bobbing her shoulders and raising her arms to the roof; without a single dancer onstage with her, Diana creates her own visual spectacle (three dancers do eventually leap across the stage for a brief interlude). But best of all, she sounds fantastic; her brassy voice hits every note she goes for, with her periodic “Woah-oh-oh-oh-yeah!” reverberating through the theatre. This is Diana belting at her best, proof how powerful her pipes really are.
6. Speaking of belting…Diana launches into “Home” from The Wiz, in what may be her best live recorded version of the song. Technically, she is dead-on here; her voice doesn’t sound nearly as wobbly during the climax as it does in other performances of it, and her confidence continues until her very final, “Like home!” Wisely, the director of the special chooses to keep most of the performance on a tight close-up shot of Miss Ross, and it’s fascinating to watch her appear so emotionally invested in the lyrics. In incredible contrast to her previous energetic performance, here she creates a visual spectacle just by standing still and singing a great song.
7. Diana immediately introduces her “latest song,” her 1979 single “It’s My House.” The crowd wildly responds to the number, further proof that it was a far bigger hit with listeners than its R&B #27 chart position would suggest. Interestingly, although it was her current single, this is an extremely truncated version of the song, passing by in about two minutes. She sounds great, but this brief number is eclipsed by what comes next.
8. No One Gets The Prize: One of the great cuts off of The Boss LP becomes one of Diana’s great performances here, again allowing her to display incredible vocal power. As on “I Ain’t Been Licked,” she is a riveting in her energetic presence, and her voice is full and dynamic. Toward the end of the (also truncated) song, she misses a few notes, but it’s a thrill to hear her go for them anyway. She also effortlessly manages the rapid-fire second verse (“She-schemed-and-dreamed-and-told-him-dirt-that-I-was-wrong-for-him”) with an ease defying the fact that at that point, she had been singing constantly for around 20 minutes. This song is a fan favorite but it didn’t remain in her stage show for long, so it’s a treat to hear and see in this special.
9. One disco song leads to another; the 1976 #1 hit “Love Hangover” comes next, with Diana offering a well-received slinky and sexy take on the mid-tempo opening of the song. The disco vamp serves the same purpose here that it had during her An Evening With… show, giving her time to get offstage and change clothes. When she returns (with sparkly Lone Ranger-ish mask, no less), she introduces her crew of dancers, which notably includes her brother Chico.
10. After her dancers, she calls attention to the glorious Eddie Kendricks singers, who’ve been superbly backing her up during the show (replacing The Jones Girls of the An Evening With… show). This leads to the show’s undoubted centerpiece and perhaps most stunning sequence (aside from that amazing opening) – her audience participation number “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” This will take up nearly the next 15 minutes of the show, as Diana walks into the audience, inviting the audience to sing along with her. This should be REQUIRED VIEWING for all wannabe entertainers; Diana Ross shows why she is (or, at least should be) considered one of the very few great live performers in music history. The way she handles the audience, coaxing complete strangers into singing with her, is masterful. Another treat here is the familiar faces in the audience; Diana’s mother and three daughters get some screen-time, with the three little girls incredibly cute and seemingly unaffected by the huge audience surrounding them. Miss Ross also gets the legendary Marvin Gaye to croon a few lines of the song, his voice breathtaking in its perfection; seriously – this man’s voice could melt better, and his brief time at the microphone is all the proof anyone would need that he was one of the best male vocalists of all time. By the end of the this performance, the audience has joined hands and is singing the song along with Miss Ross; the crowd is absolutely enraptured and welcome Diana back to the stage with a deserved standing ovation. This is it, folks. This is why Diana Ross is a legend.
11. How do you follow a performance like that? You go back to the beginning. Diana follows the triumphant “Reach Out…” with 1964’s “Baby Love,” a rapid-paced and cute performance of her early Supremes hit. As the song closes, Diana generously pays tribute to her former singing partners, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Cindy Birdsong.
12. Remember Me: Another rarity here, as this early solo hit is one that Diana doesn’t perform particularly often. This is the song that she introduces with the cryptic, “I wouldn’t change a thing…well, maybe one thing” (author J. Randy Taraborrelli speculates in his Diana Ross: A Biography that she’s talking about the demise of her first marriage). Diana’s voice is strong and youthful here; she closes it with an interesting a capella refrain of “I remember…a good thing!”
13. Lady Sings The Blues Medley: As she’d been doing in concert since the release of her 1972 film, Diana performs a medley of some of the more memorable songs from the soundtrack. Beginning with the title track, she quickly moves into “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” and finally a rousing version of “God Bless The Child.” This final selection is the standout here; Diana digs deep here, and the crowd responds with catcalls and hand claps reminiscent of what you’d hear at an evangelical revival. She is beautifully poised singing the majority of the number, gently swaying with microphone in hand, her voice smooth and controlled (especially on the lower notes). But at the end, she begins to really let loose, calling out, “The black child! The white child! The rich child! The poor child!” This gospel-inspired reprise is a nice addition to the song; Diana keeps it going, pushing her voice higher and higher and whipping the crowd into a near-frenzy. Her voice is raw here, as if she’s really not sure which notes she’s going for; it’s an interesting contrast to her usually less-aggressive way of singing the jazz and blues songs in her repertoire. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the moment; that’s how well she does it.
14. My Man (Mon Homme): Miss Ross asks the crowd which song they’d like to hear from Lady Sings The Blues; she ends up doing this Billie Holiday classic (which, to be honest, she probably intended on singing the whole time!). Her performance here is marvelous; it would be the highlight of the show if there weren’t so many other great moments. She is running on pure emotion here; by the time she hits “…and no hero out of books, but I love him,” there are tears spilling over her eyes, and they stream down her face for the rest of the number. Miss Ross has often said in interviews how important it is for her to be connected to the lyrics of the songs she sings; there is probably no greater visual example in her entire career than this. Whatever she’s thinking about while singing here, it’s totally informing the way she interprets the song, and this display of emotion is spine-tingling. Her voice is also extremely powerful here, especially as she belts the final few lines. As with “Reach Out And Touch,” her mastery of live performance on this song should be seen by anyone planning a career in music and performance. This is Diana Ross at her very best.
15. Immediately after finishing the raw, intense “My Man,” Diana Ross launches into the title track of her latest LP, “The Boss.” She manages to wipe away the emotion of the previous number and in seconds is dancing around the stage, effortlessly matching her recorded performance of the song. This is one of the more vocally-challenging singles in the Ross discography, and she more than proves her vocal gymnastics weren’t just a studio creation. As she whoops it up onstage, she’s joined by a dance in roller skates (lest you forget the era this special was taped in) and several shots show the audience dancing at their tables. It’s an hour into the show at this point, and the level of energy is impressive.
16. Theme From Mahogany/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Sadly, for the crowd in the theatre and the viewers at home, the show is wrapping up. As she’d done in her An Evening With… show (and continues doing to this day), Diana combines her recent 1975 #1 hit with her first solo single, creating an interesting medley with a dreamy ballad and a glorious, triumphant anthem. She is quickly surrounded by her dancers, who lift her high above their heads (while Diana continues singing — upside down!) and carry her back into the large projection screen, lifting the star right back to where she started the show. There could not be a better ending to the show; watching Diana appear on the screen again — larger-than-life — seems a perfect way to close an evening of high-voltage star-power.
17. All For One: For her encore, Diana offers up a riveting performance of another song included on The Boss; though “All For One” was never a single, it figured into Diana’s career on several occasions, most notably when she closed her historic 1983 Central Park concert with it. She’s vocally superb here; singing for more than an hour clearly hadn’t done anything to diminish her capabilities. There are some eye-opening high notes and moments of power, and it’s more than obvious the crowd at Caesar’s Palace didn’t want Miss Ross to leave the stage.
By the time Standing Room Only: Diana Ross aired on HBO, Diana Ross was on the verge of vaulting to even new heights of superstardom; by year’s end, she’d have released her biggest-selling solo LP ever (diana) and given the world three new top 10 singles. The next year, another Diana Ross television special would air, this time on CBS, during which she’d showcase the “new” hits, “Upside Down,” “I’m Coming Out,” and “It’s My Turn.” These songs (and several that would come in later years) may be important parts of Diana Ross’s career, but for my money, 1980’s Standing Room Only: Diana Ross is the seminal taped Diana Ross concert. From that incredible opening to the final bow during “All For One,” there isn’t a single misstep here; there may be some moments of less impact than others, but that’s unavoidable. The great moments here — the opening, “Reach Out And Touch,” and “My Man (Mon Homme)” — are as good as Diana Ross ever was onstage or onscreen. That it’s available on even fuzzy copies is a blessing. Still, fans — and, really, especially non-fans — deserve to see this special with crisp, clear audio and video. I mean, come on; after watching it — how could anyone dare to disparage Miss Ross?